UK public: ‘Let parents decide what to feed their kids’
Over 90 percent of people think that it should be parents, rather than the government or food industry, who decide the best food for their children - and nobody thinks that we need more government information about nutrition, finds a new spiked/YouGov poll.
Over 90 percent of people think that it should be parents, rather than the government or food industry, who decide the best food to feed to their kids – and nobody thinks that we need more government information about nutrition, a new poll finds.
The poll, conducted by YouGov for the online publication spiked, asked parents and non-parents across the UK who they believed should be primarily responsible for ensuring that children get a balanced diet. An overwhelming 94 percent said parents, with only one percent holding schools or the government primarily responsible, and two percent the food industry.
These findings come at a time of high official concern with childhood obesity. The Chief Medical Officer flagged up obesity as one of the five major risks to the nation’s health in 2002, and official campaigns to encourage healthy eating abound. MPs have been debating a ban on TV advertising to children of food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar, and the government’s Food Standards Agency this week launched a discussion paper on food promotion to children.
But our poll suggests that most people think such campaigns could be a waste of the government’s time. When asked what should be the government’s greatest priority in protecting children’s health, only six percent said providing healthy eating advice, and only five percent said banning food advertising to children. By contrast, 33 percent would prioritise child poverty reduction and 21 percent would prioritise immunisation programmes.
When asked which of various factors was the greatest contributor to childhood obesity, only two percent chose lack of education about proper nutrition. Nobody opted for the response, ‘lack of government information about nutrition’.
Do people care about the effect of food advertising on children? Of those respondents with pre-school and school-age children in their household, 27 percent (pre-school) and 32 percent (school-age) believed that advertising and marketing had the greatest influence on what children eat: more than schools, friends or the media. But over half believed that parents had the greatest influence on what children eat.
If food advertising does have an effect, parents are considered capable of withstanding the pressure. Of those respondents with children in their household, only five percent thought that the effect of advertising and marketing upon their children affected ‘a great deal’ the food that they bought for their kids. Thirty-seven percent (pre-school) and 40 percent (school-age) claimed that advertising and marketing influenced their decisions ‘a little’, 28 percent thought that it influenced their decisions ‘hardly at all’, and 28 percent (pre-school) and 25 percent (school-age) claimed not to be influenced at all.
What is the greatest factor in contributing to childhood obesity? Thirty-five percent of all surveyed cited lack of parental control over children’s diets, and 32 percent said the growth in sedentary activities such as TV and computer games. Fourteen percent blamed too little exercise/physical education in schools, and 15 percent cited the heavy advertising/marketing of food and drink to kids.
When asked about the types of food that made the greatest contributions to childhood obesity, 56 percent said snack products, such as crisps, chocolate and sweets, followed by fast food (35 percent). Five percent saw sweet drinks and fizzy drinks as the greatest contributor to childhood obesity, and three percent blamed pre-prepared supermarket foods. Nobody blamed school meals or breakfast cereals.
How big a problem is childhood obesity? When asked how concerned they were that their child might become obese, only six percent of respondents with school-age children in their household were very concerned. Thirty-five percent were slightly concerned, and 12 percent were quite concerned. Almost half (46 percent) said they were ‘not at all concerned’.
Eighty-one percent of all respondents did not believe that vending machines selling crisps, sweets, chocolates or fizzy drinks should be allowed in schools.
Three-quarters of respondents were supportive of initiatives by food manufacturers to sponsor and encourage sports activities in schools.
For all of the questions, there was very little difference in the responses between social grades ABC1 and C2DE, or between those with children in their household and those without.
YouGov surveyed 2405 people online between 31 October and 3 November. The results have been weighted to reflect the demographic profile of the UK’s 18-plus population.
|Why panic about children’s diets?
|Commentary by Jennie Bristow
Parents are best placed to decide what to feed their kids. Most children are not likely to become obese. Food advertising does not determine what food parents buy for their children. In protecting children’s health, the government should have far greater priorities than providing healthy eating advice.
This week’s spiked/YouGov poll should make reassuring reading for those concerned that we are in the grip of an epidemic of childhood obesity, which requires more official nutritional advice, greater regulation of the food industry, and restrictions on ‘junk food’ advertising.
An overwhelming 94 percent of people thought that parents should be primarily responsible for ensuring that their children get a balanced diet. This is similar to a Guardian/ICM poll in October, in which 83 percent said that parents must take most responsibility when it comes to children consuming junk food (1). Interestingly, our poll also found that just under half (48 percent) of people thought that parents actually have the greatest influence on what children eat – followed by advertising and marketing, at 33 percent, and friends/other children, at 14 percent.
This indicates that attempts to place responsibility for children’s diets on to official bodies, schools or the food industry will gain little support from society in general. Even though parents are not seen to control absolutely what their children eat, there is an appreciation that they are best placed to ensure that they get a balanced diet. As Peter Marsh, of the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), said: ‘It is clear from this poll that members of the British public are far more rational and sensible about food issues than the government and the self-appointed guardians of dietary correctness believe them to be.’
The fact that people consider themselves and each other to be pretty sensible about the food they feed children was reflected in other findings in our poll. When it came to what type of food was considered to be the greatest contributor to childhood obesity, our respondents singled out snack products and fast food over school meals, pre-prepared supermarket foods, sweet drinks and breakfast cereals. But when asked about the factors that most contributed to childhood obesity, our respondents were more concerned about the lack of parental control over children’s diets, and the growth in sedentary activities such as TV and computer games.
This shows a recognition that, when it comes to children’s diets, the issue is not what they eat so much as how much they eat and how little exercise they do. Dr Dee Dawson runs Rhodes Farm in London, a residential home for the treatment of children with eating disorders such as anorexia, and is currently setting up a programme at Rhodes Farm for obese children. Her major concern is that our current obsession with ‘healthy eating’ is encouraging children to develop an unhealthy fixation on the food that they eat – and that official campaigns around childhood obesity are likely to make this problem worse.
‘We shouldn’t be talking to kids about what food is bad for them’, she says. ‘Childhood obesity is on the rise, but it’s still relatively rare. All the research shows that what children eat has not changed much in 20 years – it’s that they’re driven to school and sit in front of the TV and video, and they don’t play in the streets. Parents do need to be in control – if children put on weight, parents should stop their pocket money to stop them buying chocolate, and serve salads. But the majority of children do not have a weight problem, and should not be put on a guilt trip.’
The widespread campaigns by the government and schools to reduce childhood obesity is, she says, ‘using a sledgehammer to crack a nut – trying to control the diet of a whole nation just because of a few obese kids’.
Fortunately, our poll indicates that people are not obsessive about their children’s weight. Almost half of respondents with children under 17 were ‘not at all concerned’ that their children might become obese, one third were only slightly concerned, and seven percent were ‘very concerned’. Despite the propaganda, ‘people are not worried because their children won’t become obese’, says Dr Dawson.
What about advertising? In recent weeks, the ‘problem’ of food companies advertising to children has achieved a great deal of official attention. On 4 November, Labour MP Debra Shipley introduced her Children’s Television (Advertising) Bill in the House of Commons, calling for a ban on advertisements during pre-school children’s TV that feature food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar (2).
And on 9 November, the government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched a discussion paper on food promotion to children, following the publication in September of its research on the impact of television advertising on what children eat (3). The FSA is inviting comment on a number of options, including advertising bans, more explicit labelling of food high in fat, sugar or salt, and heavier promotion of ‘healthier’ foods.
The FSA’s review of existing evidence on food advertising and children in September reached the tentative conclusion that, while the evidence cannot prove that food advertising negatively affects children’s diet, there is ‘sufficient evidence to conclude that an effect exists’. Yet as the FSA’s September research also explains, while a number of studies seem to ‘have established a clear link between television viewing and diet, obesity, and cholesterol levels’, there are considerable difficulties in drawing a direct link between TV advertising and obesity. In these studies, ‘it is impossible to say … whether this effect is caused by the advertising, the sedentary nature of television viewing or snacking that might take place whilst viewing.’ (4)
In other words, is it junk food advertising that makes kids fat, or the fact that they are snacking in front of the TV? Respondents to our poll clearly thought that latter: 15 percent thought that the heavy marketing of food and drink to kids was the greatest contributor to childhood obesity, compared with the 32 percent who blamed sedentary activities.
A further official worry about food advertising is about its impact, not on children, but on their parents – often summed up in the phrase ‘pester power’. ‘Irresponsible food and drink manufacturers ruthlessly target children through television advertising and clever marketing strategies,’ said Debra Shipley MP on 4 November, in relation to her Children’s Television (Advertising) Bill. ‘My bill will prevent these kinds of foods being foisted on pre-school children who have no understanding of the nature of advertising.’ (5)
The concern is that food companies encourage children to want certain foods, and the children then pester their parents into buying this food for them – thereby encouraging childhood obesity. Respondents to our poll, however, had a rather more robust view of parents’ ability to withstand the pressures of marketing. When asked ‘Does the effect of advertising and marketing on your children influence your decisions about the food you buy for them?’, only five percent of those respondents with children in their household said ‘a great deal’, and a quarter said ‘Not at all’. Only five percent said that banning food advertising to children should be a government priority.
It does seem, therefore, that whatever motivates government agencies and MPs to restrict food advertising to children, it is not parental concern about ‘pester power’. And whatever people think children should be eating, they are adamant that it should be parents who decide, not schools, the government or the food industry.
Is junk food a faddist myth?, by Mick Hume, The Times (London)
Weighing the arguments, by Rob Lyons
(1) Ban junk food from schools, says poll, Guardian, 22 October 2003
(2) Call for TV food ads ban, BBC News, 4 November 2003
(3) Promotion of food and children’s diets, FSA, 9 November 2003; Food Standards Agency publishes review of evidence into link between the promotion of foods and children’s eating behaviour, FSA, 25 September 2003
(4) Food Standards Agency publishes review of evidence into link between the promotion of foods and children’s eating behaviour, FSA, 25 September 2003
(5) Call for TV food ads ban, BBC News, 4 November 2003
- 94 percent of respondents said that parents should be primarily responsible for ensuring that children get a balanced diet. Two percent said the food industry; one percent said schools; and one percent said the government.
- 33 percent said that the government’s greatest priority in protecting children’s health should be child poverty reduction. This was followed by immunisation programmes (21 percent), legislation controlling sugar and fat levels in food (14 percent), and improving children’s hospitals (11 percent). Six percent thought that providing healthy eating advice should be its greatest priority, and five percent cited banning food advertising to children.
- 48 percent thought that parents have the greatest influence on what children eat. This was followed by advertising and marketing (33 percent), friends/other children (14 percent), the media (three percent) and schools (one percent).
- When asked whether the effect of advertising and marketing upon their children influenced their decisions about the food that they bought for their children, five percent of respondents with children aged 0-4 in their household said ‘a great deal’. 37 percent said ‘a little’, 28 percent said ‘hardly at all’, and 28 percent said ‘not at all’. Among respondents with children aged 5-16 in their household, five percent said ‘a great deal’, 40 percent said ‘a little’, 28 percent said ‘hardly at all’, and 25 percent said ‘not at all’.
- When asked what factors they believed to be the greatest contributor to childhood obesity, 35 percent said lack of parental control over children’s diets. 32 percent said the growth in sedentary activities such as TV and computer games. This was followed by the heavy advertising/marketing of food and drink to kids (15 percent), and too little exercise/PE in schools (14 percent). Two percent cited lack of education about proper nutrition, and zero percent cited lack of government information about proper nutrition.
- When asked what type of food they considered to be the greatest contributor to childhood obesity, 56 percent said snack products such as crisps, chocolate, sweets. This was followed by fast food (35 percent). Five percent said sweet drinks and fizzy drinks, and three percent said pre-prepared supermarket foods. Schools meals and breakfast cereals were cited by zero percent.
- 74 percent of respondents were supportive of initiatives by food manufacturers to sponsor and encourage sports activities in schools. 16 percent were not supportive, and nine percent did not know.
- 81 percent thought that vending machines, selling crisps, sweets, chocolates, or fizzy drinks should not be allowed in schools. 13 percent thought they should be allowed, and six percent did not know.
- When asked whether they were concerned that their children might become obese, seven percent of respondents with children aged 0- 4 in their household were very concerned, seven percent were quite concerned, 38 percent were slightly concerned and 46 percent were not at all concerned. For those with children aged 5-16 in their household, six percent were very concerned, 12 percent were quite concerned, 35 percent were slightly concerned and 46 percent were not at all concerned.
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